When the band at an E3 party last night broke into a little Black Sabbath, a seven-foot-tall teddy bear escorting a posse of masked fireplug-sized Mexican wrestlers bounded up and gave me a high-five.
I didn’t blink. Such activities can only be expected at the world’s largest video gaming event.
On the other hand, when earlier this week industry executives like Xbox executive J Allard waxed nostalgic for the days when the family gathered around the Atari 2600 hearth, I blinked. We all blinked.
And when Douglas Lowenstein, president of the group that runs E3, compared the game creation process to an echo chamber where "you’re talking to guys who have the same interests," I detected a theme.
It’s true that gaming is close to a $10 billion industry in the United States and that when you take into account not only console games, but mobile phone games and Web games such as online checkers and Bejeweled, you did find gamers of all ages and more than one gender.
But this is E3 we’re talking about. Birthplace of the first-person-shooter. Homeland of the Mohawked, the pony-tailed, the head-shaved and those guys that really need to get out more. Where could one possibly find games that reached beyond the already indoctrinated? I made that my goal this week.
Nintendo was my first stop.
"Nintendogs," the interactive puppy training experience for the handheld Nintendo DS, is so darn cute it’s almost sickening.
Pick a puppy from the pound. Go on, pick one. They’re all so cuddly. "Nintendogs" runs voice recognition software so when you issue commands using the DS’s built-in microphone, your puppy will respond. Administer cuddles and hugs by rubbing the DS’s bottom touch-screen. Ain’t it cute?
Now take your "Nintendogs" on the road. If another "Nintendogs" owner is within range your DS will "Bark!" Pop open your DS, accept the puppy play date and watch your puppy interact with someone else’s puppy. No need to carry trash bags.
Another Nintendo DS title called "Electroplankton" is not a game at all, but a music-making program. The object is to create sounds by maneuvering marine molecules across a watery landscape. Create interesting enough patterns for the underwater creatures to move around in and you’ve got yourself a good time.
During the Nintendo press briefing a DJ from New York demonstrated how two DS machines running "Electroplankton" could generate sounds fit for a Paris Hilton table dance. What a gig for that DJ! I wonder how he explains his job to his mother?
Next stop, Electronic Arts, the interactive behemoth that also happens to be the home of Will Wright, creator of the "Sims" and "Sim City."
Wright was showing off "Spore," a simulation of evolution, exploration and conquest.
You start as a multicellular organism fighting to stay alive in a primordial soup. I’m not kidding.
Eventually you evolve into a swimming trilobite-type creature and from there into a land animal that over eons gets a bigger brain, discovers fire and starts grunting a primitive language.
Before you know it the game changes from an eat or be eaten to a grander "Civilization"-like setting where your creatures are building cities and bullying the neighbors.
The cool thing with "Spore" is that you affect how your creatures evolve. Those traits you set early in the creatures' evolution manifest themselves in strange ways throughout the game.
Conquer the world and move on to other planets. Then the solar system. Then the galaxy. Then other galaxies. And the great thing is that no matter how many galaxies you conquer, the traits you originally chose in that primordial soup are still in the DNA.
"Electronic Arts" was also showing off "The Godfather," a game based on the movie. And while the game play I saw won’t lend itself to the non-gamer, it nevertheless looks cool in that 1940s New York sort of way.
According to "The Godfather’s" executive producer David Martini, the setting is a "living world."
"We’re moving down a path that has memory and consequence," he said. Meaning that you don’t want to get Sonny angry. Screw up in one scene and you may be sleeping with the fishes in the next.
I’ll have to take his word for it because at E3 there is no time to really get your hands on a game. Only first impressions.
Speaking of games based on movies: "Scarface," "Jaws" and "King Kong." All at E3.
I would have liked to have spend more time with "Shadow of the Colossus" for the Sony PlayStation 2. It comes from the makers of "Ico," a game that told a story of love and loyalty without falling for the ham-handed shtick most games fall for.
If "Shadow" is anything like "Ico," it may have crossover appeal. The game certainly has eye-candy going for it what with giants and grey hazy horizons and a hero with a gleaming sword.
Another Sony offering that will appeal to some outside the gaming sphere is "EyeToy Kinetic."
"EyeToy Kinetic" is an exercise game. Set up the EyeToy camera that connects to your PlayStation 2. Stand (not sit) in front of the TV. See yourself on the TV. See objects floating on the screen. Swat them. Kick them. Faster. More.
Kinetic will run you through a routine and even offer encouragement if you lag behind. According to the game's producer, Kinetic will work through every muscle group you have and offer analysis on your progress.
I’m tired just writing about it.
One great, great (did I say great ?) crossover hit from 2004 was "Katamari Damacy," a game where the object was to collect everything in your path by rolling a sticky ball.
The sequel, "We Love Katamari," was on display at E3. Apparently, it involves cooperative play where two people need to roll the ball together. I say apparently, because I did not get a chance to see it. With 5,000 products at E3, one can only see so much.
Acknowledging the overload, one booth actually gave away Tylenol capsules. Best giveaway of the show, closely followed by the hubcap-sized faux bling offered at the booth promoting an upcoming 50 Cent game.
Another game I wasn't able to see was "Quake 4," the shooting game from the dark lords at id Software. OK, "Quake 4" isn’t a potential crossover title. In fact, it epitomizes everything that non-gamers think about games.
But now that we’re talking about shooters, I did get a chance to see "Unreal Tournament 2007." More vehicles, weapons and ‘tude. The usual stuff. Gamers will love it.
"Call of Duty 2" on the Xbox 360 looked fantastic. I caught a scene of the British 7th Division battling Rommel’s Afrika Korps in North Africa. The character animation was among the best I’ve seen in any war game, but I couldn’t keep my eyes from straying to the cool Mediterranean-style buildings and lamps.
While "Call of Duty" was impressive, a number of the Xbox 360 titles did not look as good as I expected. Blame the hype. Or blame the reality that the Xbox 360 is still in its alpha stage. Neither the games nor the hardware are ready for prime time, no matter what Elijah Wood said on MTV last week.
So I’ll hold my judgment until its Thanksgiving release.
I’ll also refrain from commenting on the PlayStation 3. What I saw at the Sony press briefing was gorgeous. The PS3 looks and sounds like it can deliver. But will it deliver at the same quality as those demos? We can’t say right now because they are not showing anything else.
One thing that the Xbox 360 did right (if you can allow me to finish before accusing me of being part of the MSNBC-Microsoft conspiracy) is put effort into the design of the box itself.
Two design teams, one in Japan and one in San Francisco, were commissioned. The result is a more elegant, more living-room friendly console — one much more likely to be welcomed under the TV by your non-gaming family.
That was part of the intention, according to Xbox’s Allard.
"We wanted it to be more inviting a broader audience," he told MSNBC.com.
I did have time to spend alone with the Xbox 360. I touched it, held it, caressed it. It’s definitely smaller than the bulky old Xbox.
Also smaller, cuter and a possible crossover hit is the new Game Boy Micro from Nintendo. It’s nice to see game companies finally get hip to better-looking hardware.
Most of the games mentioned above have a crossover appeal, but I had to go deeper. I had to find the truly universal game experience. I found it at mobile phone gaming company I-Play, which is distributing "Skipping Stone," originally produced by Korean company Gamevil.
As the name suggest, "Skipping Stone" is a game where you skip stones across an digital lake.
Nothing fancy. Just hurling rocks. Game of the show.